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Too-early poll results still part of elections

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See if you can guess when the following letter to the editor was published in this newspaper:

"On election night about 6:45 p.m., I approached a polling place from the sidewalk. It was situated in the basement and entered from the garage door.

"From upstairs . . . I heard the following statement made loudly and clearly, '(______) has been elected. The computer has figured the voting odds to be 299 to 1 and that (________) will be the next president.'

"After leaving the polls, I went to my telephone with a list of about 30 registered voters who had not yet been to the polls. . . . In the course of my visits with these people, I was astounded at their reasons for not voting.

"Five different people said to me, 'What difference does it make now? My vote will not change the picture one whit!' "

The writer went on to say that television networks are robbing Americans of privacy in the polling place.

Give up?

The year was 1960, and the name to fill in the blanks was John F. Kennedy.

The American political and civic landscape is dotted with some permanent fixtures — issues that seem to dig in like morning glory and never go away. And this is one of the most entrenched of them all. If I had checked the archives back into the 1950s, I'm sure I would have found similar complaints. Every four years, Americans in the West, and particularly in Hawaii, complain loudly that they are tired of knowing who won the presidential race before they cast their own ballots.

And, every four years, they get ignored. Or at least they did until 2000. That's when election night turned into a perfect storm. It was when we in the news business had to hunt for the Dramamine because of the motion sickness. How well I recall the feeling at 2 a.m. of not knowing which candidate to congratulate as the winner.

Maybe, just maybe, that was enough to pull the problem up by the roots.

According to recent news reports, television executives are going to be extra careful Tuesday night. Fox News Senior Vice President John Moody told the Washington Post, "We all learned a lesson four years ago. There will probably be an abundance of caution in most newsrooms."

Executives at other networks all said versions of the same thing. This time, they won't predict a state until all of the polls have closed in that state. In 2000, of course, they began calling Florida for Al Gore while people still were voting in the portion of the state that is on Central time. They later recanted and called the state for Bush and then, as we all remember, left it in limbo for a few weeks.

So this is good news, right? Well, maybe. Let's be clear about something. The networks are being extra careful because Tuesday night shows all the promise of being just as close as last time around. If the picture becomes clear early on, the folks in Hawaii may find themselves casting meaningless ballots again.

No, the 2000 election didn't end the problem of early election results. However, the trend toward absentee voting will. The Post reports that an estimated 50 percent of voters in New Mexico and Colorado are voting this way now, and the figure is 70 percent in Washington state. Traditional exit polling won't account for those folks. Meanwhile, traditional polling methods — calling people at random on the telephone — is in trouble, too. More and more people are using cell phones as their primary phone, and with caller ID, it's too easy to knowingly reject a pollster's call.

That sort of thing screws up random sampling. We could be heading into a brave new uncertain world at election time.

Personally, I prefer the Washington Redskins' methods of predicting the outcome. As a Newhouse News Service story noted this week, the Redskins' game closest to Election Day has been a foolproof predictor of the presidential race since 1932, when the team was the Boston Braves.

If Washington wins, the current party in the White House wins. If the team loses or ties, get ready for change. You can take it to the bank.

Let's see people in Hawaii try to keep the networks from giving us NFL scores.

Whoops: Last week, in writing about the perils of early voting, I implied that Utah did not allow people to vote absentee in-person before Election Day. That was wrong. As Amy Naccarato, director of Utah's elections office, nicely pointed out to me, people here may vote absentee in person at their county clerk's office. That is not the same, however, as the early voting going on in several states right now. That remains, in my opinion, a bad thing.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com